America’s Technical Debt

If you are reading this and you know what “technical debt” means, then you already have a kind of privilege that most of America does not have. For those of you coming to this without knowing what “technical debt” means, I will briefly explain.

Technical debt is something akin to the programmer equivalent of “Honey, I’m busy right now. I’ll do the chores later, I promise.” Programmers do this kind of procrastination so often, that they came up with a term for it. That term is technical debt. Basically, it’s leaving some tough problem to fix later because immediate needs are more pressing.

It’s not as simple as the above explanation. In reality, there are often many good reasons to accumulate technical debt which you promise you’ll get to later, as soon as you find the time. Well, time and time again, we find that there just isn’t enough time to get to that technical debt. We are too busy taking care of the now to worry about the later.

One of the good reasons for technical debt is that there is an immediate thing that needs to be done and we can’t worry about the future because there will be no future for this company or product until this one thing I’m currently working on is done. Often times, the dreaded future never comes or comes in a form that is more manageable than originally believed. When it comes due, you simply pay the cost of the technical debt. You never know when it will come due. But in order to make progress, you must pay that technical debt off. And it’s always painful.

But once that expedient choice is made, the technical debt locks itself into the system immediately affecting all of your future progress and future decisions. But it’s tolerated because to even get to the point of considering the problems of the future would not have existed unless some technical debt was incurred at some point.

By this analogy, which will be more effective if you are an engineer or programmer who has experienced technical debt or have been asked to fix it, we look at America as a country with tremendous technical debt which is about to come due.

Let’s look at one instance of American technical debt which is not quite so politically charged right now so we can illustrate by analogy objectively and not be affected by the very system we live in which carries tremendous technical debt, and thus tremendous influence over our unconscious attitudes and biases because we inherently believe, as humans are wont to do, that whatever we are currently doing is correct and moral.

The first technical debt I would like to discuss is the free pass that the United States government gives to tobacco companies. If any other company made a product that is known to kill people as regularly as tobacco, we would collectively complain and have it stopped or reduced. In fact, that has happened, but the tobacco companies were able to get away with it for a very long time and still do. Have you ever wondered why?

Well, it’s not just because they’re a big corporation with a big lobby in Washington. Well, that is one reason, but the reason for their long-lasting influence over the course of 200+ years is because they have always been hugely influential on the USA from the time before there was even a USA.

In the days preceding the US’s independence from England, the fledgling colonies experimented with printing money. And largely this experiment with printing paper fiat money went about as well as you’d expect, which is not very well. There were counterfeits and inflation and each state had their own currency. It was a mess which is why we don’t have states printing their own money today. Yet, if they did do that, and it was a successful system, you can bet they’d still be doing it today and would be pressing for legislation to keep doing it forever. This is a fictional alternate history version of technical debt meant to illustrate how our past successes can impede our future progress.

And so, because of all of the bad money going around paying for individual states’ militias and taxes and whatnot, people regarded the printed money of the colonies as basically worthless. But the economy still had to keep working, so what did people do?

Well, they bundled up dried tobacco leaves and used it as currency! In this way, you didn’t have to rely on a state’s solvency to back its paper currency. You could, in a pinch, simply sell your tobacco. Bundles of tobacco were made into units of currency. So, a foreign nation such as France who would be quite wary of being paid in worthless Colonial paper currency could instead be paid in tobacco bundles. An average colonist could be paid with a slip of paper that was basically an IOU for some amount of tobacco! Tobacco was literally money!

And so, for a while, the entire tobacco industry propped up the US economy. If the US needed to buy weapons and cannons from France, they could pay in a currency that France would accept: bundles of tobacco leaves. Or they could convert tobacco leaves to gold themselves on the open market and pay in gold.

And so, the fledgling colonies incurred technical debt with the tobacco industry in this way. Without tobacco, there wouldn’t have even been a United States of America. So, that is a great debt that the Colonies and the new country of the United States of America owes to tobacco growers. But more importantly, the political influence that tobacco growers had on colony and US politics still remains very influential even though it is no longer as crucial to the US economy as it was in the early days.

The US has grown far beyond the economy of tobacco. We have largely fixed that technical debt. It was an important and influential backbone to American economy and society for a long time. But then, eventually, the time came to discard it along with all of its associated evils.

Part of that evil was the Civil War which pitted the agricultural slave-owning south with the industrial North. Well, the shape and future of the nation was decided in that war. We would shape the country in the model of the North and not the South. Not only that, but the South was not allowed to continue their course. This is part of fixing the technical debt of slavery and tobacco and an agricultural economic base. We abandoned that potential future because it was unethical and more importantly, not as economically viable as an industrial nation rather than an agricultural nation.

So far, so good. America is doing fairly well now. Certainly, the founding fathers and Abraham Lincoln could not have envisioned where we are today, communicating via global electronic network in a largely industrial society that is supported by mass produced agriculture that is greatly enhanced in productivity by industrial invention with immigrants from every corner of the world.

However, they also could not imagine the technical debt that we suffer today which is a problem left over from a legacy of a nation struggling for survival.

When a civilization arises from a nation built on slavery and wealthy landowners and wealthy industrialists, then is it any surprise that the foundational structure of that system favors the children and grandchildren of those people? Is it any wonder that the descendants of those people would regard former slaves and immigrants as undeserving upstarts who were trying to take away something that is rightfully theirs?

Is America really the land of the free? Or is that merely a misleading slogan like “The Patriot Act”? Perhaps the meaning behind “The Land of the Free” is that it is the Land of the Currently Free, meaning those who were free men by virtue of wealth and lands at the time of the Revolutionary War, not the land of the free-to-be-in-some-indeterminate-future.

Well, we are that indeterminate future today. We are those upstarts. And we have seen a different America that we like. We see the potential of a land of opportunity. A real land of opportunity, not just for the predestined inheritors of the Colonies, but for people who have immigrated here or whose ancestors have been brought here unwillingly, and for all who have yet to immigrate here and call it home and call themselves Americans. This is different than what America has been or ever was. This is an unintended consequence of immigration, of women’s suffrage, and civil rights. This is what happens when you have the kind of constitution where people can democratically decide how to change it. Small, incremental changes can have huge long lasting effects. But that class struggle is still there, the technical debt from the early days of the nation. If you are not in the image of the original colonists, then you are an outsider and a usurper. You are illegitimate to the claim to the prize that is America. That is the regressive, conservative sentiment. It is understandable. But is it wise?

This class division is America’s technical debt. It has been sitting there for a very long time since before there was even a country or constitution at all. It sits there as a fundamental structure of society, just as crusty as the old code in a program or app gets in the way of adapting it to new things.

American culture has changed, but the fundamental structure of American society as one that is for descendants of the original colonists has not changed. It is now okay to embrace multi-culturalism, but not okay to openly embrace racism and xenophobia. This pivot occurred after the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. Going into the past beyond those cultural lines, those attitudes were more acceptable. Going forward, into the future, those attitudes are becoming less acceptable, although it seems that Trump is tapping into that ancient sentiment to gather votes.

Trump’s movement, to me, seems regressive. He not only does not want to fix the technical debt that America has accumulated into the structure of society such as institutional racism and institutional sexism, but wants to rewind the clock to a time when those were the prevailing attitudes and were both acceptable and morally correct. In essence, he wants to revert all of the code back to pre-civil rights movement and possibly back further, pre women’s suffrage and god forbid, pre-civil war.

The question is, if Trump’s movement succeeds in gathering not only voters but also changing the dominant sentiment on the future of America, then where does it end? If the white male inheritors of America “deserve” to inherit America before all others because of their ancestors’ sacrifice and hard work, then where does it end? Will he expel all people who were descendant from immigrants after the United States was formed? Will he revoke women’s right to vote because that’s what the founding fathers had wanted? Will he revert American society back to a point where not only was slavery legal, but also moral because the Bible is the absolute authority on morality and it’s not only condoned in the Bible, but there are also tons of pro-tips on slavery in the Bible.

Even if Trump is not willing to go that far, his ideas may spawn a future where someone takes his ideas further to regress the code further so that all of the technical debt that we’ve fixed so far is thrown away so that we return to a structure and system more similar to colonial times even though we are now in modern times. How would such an agricultural system work in a modern post-industrial information age society? Who knows? But I don’t think that the people who are seduced by Trump’s ideas care about the practicality. They care about the sentiment: This is “rightfully” ours and everyone else should GTFO.

But they are on the other side of history and progress, I hope. I hope that most of the people who have had this sentiment had died out long before crossing those important historic cultural lines. Like it or not, simply electing a biracial black man into office is crossing a cultural line. I think the Trump supporters instinctively understand what that means: Once you go black… you can’t go back… if I could borrow the crude perjorative phrase to elucidate their greatest racist fears come true. But they oh so desperately want to go back now. The odds are no longer stacked in their favor. And their misunderstanding that this means the odds are stacked against them means they will fight any and all attempts to rectify institutional racism and institutional sexism because they are also hurting, despite their inherent privilege over many others.

In other words, the current existing system that has inherited the technical debt of all of the original colonists still exists and still haunts us and prevents us from making changes to the source code. It still works, people say, so you can’t change it.

Well, some of us would like to build a structure or at least modify the existing structure so that it can last far into the future. And what we’re saying is that the old edifice and the old structures upon which this nation was built are not good and strong enough to last us very long into the future. So, some of us would like to fix that. Some of us, who are denigrated as not the true descendants and founders of this country, still feel strongly about the good of the future and are as invested in the success and future of this country because it is our home, too.

I think this is where movements such as #blacklivesmatter and #alllivesmatter clash. It is this inherent disagreement about America’s technical debt. Does it exist? Should we fix it? Who should fix it? And who should own the source code after we fix it?

These issues arise in a regular tech company and the discussions and arguments get just as heated and just as political. Blame gets cast all around and communication breaks down. It’s both interesting and disheartening to see the examine same thing play out on the national stage. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. People are human, after all.

It’s just surprising to see my experience dealing with people in an office setting play out almost the exact same way in a real life political setting. I don’t know if this is a new thing due to social media collapsing all of our various communities into mono-cultured echo-chambered identities so that a group of people such as #blacklivesmatters becomes condensed into a single identity in the eyes of many others rather than remain the diverse group of individuals that they are.

But it’s interesting there are so many parallels with this class struggle as there are in an office that is struggling over how to fix technical debt.

Anyway, I thought I’d share that insight with my audience today.

And so, my conclusion is that America had incurred a lot of technical debt in its early revisions and we’re seeing some of those consequences continuing to play out today. Now, fixing technical debt is never an easy task and is certainly very technical and not fun at all. But it is something that we must do if we hope to make a foundation that is strong enough for us to rest our entire futures upon it.

If I had a more neutral term for #blacklivesmatter, I would go with #fixAmericasTechnicalDebt. I only make this recommendation because I find people having some trouble acknowledging that the societal structure has some problems and that we can all roll up our sleeves and be on the same side of the issue and get some work done together rather than fight against each other. Unfortunately, #blacklivesmatter has taken on a sort of exclusionary tone to some people who are not deeply listening to legitimate grievances that people may have about a certain issue which is only one of many illustrative issues of the problem of America’s technical debt. Of course, it’s not meant to be exclusionary, but that doesn’t matter. People are gonna hear what they want to hear. So, let’s change the conversation to be inclusive and unmistakably so. Let’s call it fixing America! We know America is old and we know what worked in the past doesn’t work in the future. Are you still walking around with a Nokia phone? Or a Palm Pre? No? Then, maybe some progress is not a terrible thing. So, maybe some things the founding fathers got wrong we can fix today! We fixed slavery! We can fix the legacy to slavery, too! Let’s do it! Those guys in the 1800s got nothing on us! We’re smarter and better than those guys for sure right? And we’re smart enough to not fight a civil war about it!

References:
Tobacco currency: http://archive.tobacco.org/History/colonialtobacco.html This link also describes why buying slaves was preferable to buying land when tobacco is your main cash crop. Tobacco wore out the land and so you had to move often. If you moved to a new rented land, you would bring your slaves with you. And so, tobacco and slavery went hand-in-hand in early colonial America.

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